Monday, March 29, 2010

On The Wings of Evolution

Dan Vergano of ooh-es-ahh-heute (USAToday) has a story on how wings may have evolved in insects. They plainly have creationists in the cross-hairs:
Wings allowed bugs to become the most widespread critters on Earth, about three-quarters of all animals, but the fossil record offers no clues to their origin. Wings probably already graced the oldest known insect fossil, Rhyniognatha hirsti, about 400 million years ago.

Some religious writers — such as Matthew Vanhorn of Apologetics Press in Montgomery, Ala., who wrote that the "evolution of insect wings and subsequent flight is a concept impossible for evolutionists to explain" in a 2004 essay on the topic — have seen holes in evolutionary biology in the lack of an insect wing explanation.

But it turns out that just two genes may explain insect wings, reports a team led by Japan's Nao Niwa of the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe.
According to the story, the authors used mayflies and wingless bristletail insects, which are considered to be more primitive in their genetic makeup when compared to animals like butterflies. Here is what they found:
A gene called "vestigial" and another called "wingless" (so named because it prevents wing growth when mutated in fruit flies) work together during the insects' embryonic growth to sprout wings in mayflies, and fail to fire up in the silverfish.

Both genes already were present in the wingless ancient ancestor of today's flying bugs, the researchers note, because they had other jobs to do. One plays a role in development of body shell sheets (vestigial) and the other helps limb growth (wingless). Add them together and you have a shelled limb — a wing, they conclude.
This is still a bit sketchy but it is a workable, testable model for examining this aspect of evolution.

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New Gordon Glover Design Detectives Video Up

Gordon Glover has launched another of his "Design Detectives" videos over at his YouTube channel. We are now up to number four and they are all a hoot. This video is on the "chicken or the egg" problem in intelligent design.

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Friday, March 26, 2010

Francisco Ayala Wins Templeton Award, Discovery Institute Responds

Francisco Ayala, the genetics and evolutionary biology professor at UC Irvine and former Dominican priest, has won the 2009 Templeton Award, given for work in "affirming spirituality." The story, by Mitchell Landsberg of the L.A. Times, notes:
As a young doctoral student in the 1960s, Francisco J. Ayala was surprised to learn that Darwin's theory of evolution appeared to be less widely accepted in the United States than in his native Spain, then a profoundly conservative and religious country.

Ayala brought a unique sensibility to the topic, because he had been ordained as a Catholic priest before undertaking graduate studies in evolution and genetics. What he believed then, and has spent his career espousing, is that evolution is consistent with the Christian faith.

On Thursday, Ayala, an acclaimed researcher at UC Irvine, won the 2010 Templeton Prize, awarded annually in recognition of achievements in affirming spirituality. The prize is worth $1.6 million, which Ayala said he would give to charity.
Ayala's work is very thought-provoking and deeply moving. He is an a brilliant geneticist and evolutionary biologist and has embraced both his faith in God and the science of evolution. He is also not supportive in any way of Intelligent Design. Recently, he wrote a review of Stephen Meyer's book Signature of the Cell, which appeared on the BioLogos page. His comment, in that review, is currently being echoed in Steve Matheson's ongoing review over at Quintessence of Dust. Ayala wrote:
The keystone argument of Signature of the Cell is that chance, by itself, cannot account for the genetic information found in the genomes of organisms. I agree. And so does every evolutionary scientist, I presume. Why, then, spend chapter after chapter and hundreds of pages of elegant prose to argue the point? It is as if in a book about New York, the author would tell us that New York is not in Europe, and then dedicate most of the book to advancing evidence that, indeed, truly, New York is not in Europe.
His award reception has caught the attention (of course) of the Discovery Institute's David Klinghoffer, who has responded. He writes:
Advocates of a supposedly religion-friendly Darwinism have seized on the idea of God’s acting through secondary causes. In his book Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion, Ayala argues that since God acts through intermediate causation to create geological features (mountains, rivers), why may the same analysis not be applied to the evolution of life? In the latter context, he insists that the idea of God’s acting through “specific agency…amounts to blasphemy.” For such direct control would imply that God bears responsibility for all the cruelties, pains, and dysfunctions that have accompanied the unfolding of life’s history.

But there is a real and important difference between secondary causation of the kind that results in the formation of rivers and mountains, on one hand, and that which, according to the evolutionary model, results in life in all its forms. The operation of geological forces follows paths described by physical laws. Whatever role chance plays, the overall process is predictable. The religious believer may reasonably picture God, having authored those laws, as the creator of geological features, having planned and foreseen what those features would be. Similarly, He is the author of those laws that govern patterns in the weather, in the alternation of the seasons, of day and night, and so on. God could thus confidently tell Noah that “So long as the earth exists, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease” (Genesis 8:6).
Here, you can sense that Klinghoffer is setting up a dichotomy between what is real science (geology) and what is fake science (evolution). Here again is this meme that every scientist in all organized disciplines have gotten everything right and are performing honest science EXCEPT those evolutionists, who have gotten everything wrong. He even makes a point of mentioning that these geological laws are predictable. Then he brings down the hammer:
But life — including human life — is different. If Darwin and the vast majority of his modern advocates are right, then the path of life's evolution was inherently unpredictable — not wholly random, since natural selection plays its role, but generated by chance and governed by no plan, design, or teleology. Ayala himself has said this very clearly: “It was Darwin’s greatest accomplishment to show that the complex organization and functionality of living beings can be explained as the result of a natural process — natural selection — without any need to resort to a Creator or other external agent.”
This is so basically wrong as to be almost unbelievable. The sheer force of evolutionary theory is the means by which it is able to predict results. It was predicted (by Darwin) that the earliest human precursors would be found in Africa because that is where our closest relatives (gorillas and chimpanzees) live. That is exactly where they were found. It was predicted that a tetrapod intermediate would be found in the shallow-sea Devonian deposits of the Canadian arctic because that is when such a creature should have arisen. In 2005, Neil Shubin found Tiktaalik. It was predicted that the likely explanation for the chromosomal number discrepancy between the higher apes and humans would be the discovery of two fused chromosomes in humans. that is exactly what was found. The examples are almost endless. Life is not different from geological processes. Both derive from environmental changes.

A short aside on semantics: He comments that evolution is controlled by "no plan, design, or teleology." How does he know this? Did he have a "road to Damascus" moment? In this, he has confused randomness and stochasticity, a critical mistake that seems to be common in attacks on "neo-Darwinism." A process that is random is truly random—there is no plan at all. Stochasticity means that a process is non-deterministic. There might or might not be a plan but we cannot discern it. The two are very different. All evolutionary creationists agree that God is behind evolution but that it might not be possible to determine exactly what His plan is or why. Under Klinghoffer's definition, there can be no God involved at all.

But that is not the real problem here. The problem is that evolution is not random, just as geological processes are not random. The same physical laws that govern how the terrain is going to behave under the influence of wind, water and temperature govern evolutionary changes. There is measured directional selection in organisms that live in different environments, just as there are measured directional changes in those environments over time. One does not happen without the other and both yield predictions, not just about what one will see in the future but what was present in the past. Because we know what shallow-sea environments look like today, we can spot them at geological periods in the past. Because we know that there were fish in early and middle Devonian shallow-seas and tetrapods in late Devonian shallow seas, we can predict what we will find in between.

Darwin wasn't showing that there was no God. He was showing that in trying to explain "descent with modification" of animals, the same physical laws that govern geology govern biology as well. The changes could be quantified in a biological sense and the theory could be used to answer hypothetical questions. This was exactly contrary to the message of William Paley, who argued that some things could not be explained in any other way than by production through divine fiat. This is, almost to a 't' the modern message of Intelligent Design. Klinghoffer continues:
The theistic evolutionary view of those like Francisco Ayala and Kenneth Miller (when he is in that mood) is just a revived variant of Gnosticism. According to that ancient heresy, a hidden, alien, passive Supreme Being coexists with a creator Demiurge, a blind watchmaker (to borrow the title of Richard Dawkin’s book), unconscious, indifferent, and morally irrelevant.
Klinghoffer plainly hasn't met any "theistic evolutionists" (or is it "evolutionary creationists?"). If he had, he would know this is just nonsense. No EC that I am familiar with is bashful about his worship of Jesus Christ or of incorporating that faith into his or her life and including the science as well. Does Klinghoffer know the intimate details of Ayala's and Miller's relationships with God?

So Orchids to Francisco Ayala, who has shown that his Christian faith and his science can walk hand in hand and onions to David Klinghoffer, for another Discovery Institute hatchet job.

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Possible New Hominid Species Discovered in Siberia

Reuters is running with a story about genetic research being done on hominid material discovered in Siberia that, according to researchers, suggests the presence of a new species of hominid that lived until around 30 thousand years ago. The author writes:
"It really just looked like something we had never seen before," Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, told a telephone briefing.

"It was a sequence that looked something like humans but really quite different."

Writing in Nature, Krause and colleagues said they sequenced DNA from the mitochondria, a part of the cell, which is passed down virtually intact from a woman to her children. They compared it to DNA from humans, Neanderthals and apes.

The sequence indicates the hominin's line diverged about a million years ago from the line that gave rise to both humans and Neanderthals and that split about 500,000 years ago.
I always have grave misgivings when geneticists, in the complete absence of diagnostic palaeontological material, proclaim that a new species has been discovered. For one thing, we don't have the genetic sequences for the intermediates between the find in Siberia and contemporary humans. How many substitutions denote a different species? This is where systematics can get away from us. If we don't have the intermediates, how do we know where the proper branch is? To be fair, the researchers, themselves, are reticent to go the 'new species' route yet but it seems they are leaning that way.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Earliest North American Bird

PR Newswire is reporting on the discovery of the earliest fossilized bird in North America. The story notes:
The new shoreline-inhabiting species bridges a gap in time and space between older enantiornithine birds found in Europe and Asia, and younger species from North and South America. Scientists had suspected these kinds of birds should have been in North America at the time, but direct evidence of their presence had been lacking until now.
More pieces of the puzzle.

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The Evolution of On the Origins of Species

Ben Fry has come up with an interesting take on how Charles Darwin's book On the Origins of Species by Means of Natural Selection changed over time. As Mr. Fry notes:
Using the six editions as a guide, we can see the unfolding and clarification of Darwin's ideas as he sought to further develop his theory during his lifetime.
It is a little hard to figure out exactly what is going on at first blush but if you spend some time with it, it holds a wealth of information. Each column is a chapter of the book and you can see how things were added based on the color-key at the bottom from the first through the sixth edition. Neat.

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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Laetoli Footprints Those of Completely Bipedal Human

Thirty years ago, a set of footprints was discovered in an ash layer at the African site of Laetoli and dated to 3.6 million years ago. This corresponded to the time range of Australopithecus afarensis but it was not sure whether or not this reflected the gait of afarensis, which was, at the time, thought to be somewhat bent-kneed and not truly bipedal in a modern sense. Now, Science Daily news has a story that reconstruction simulation research has determined that those individuals that made the tracks walked bipedally in a modern fashion. The author writes:
Since the Laetoli tracks were discovered, scientists have debated whether they indicate a modern human-like mode of striding bipedalism, or a less-efficient type of crouched bipedalism more characteristic of chimpanzees whose knees and hips are bent when walking on two legs.

To resolve this, [David] Raichlen and his colleagues devised the first biomechanical experiment explicitly designed to address this question.

The team built a sand trackway in Raichlen's motion capture lab at the UA and filmed human subjects walking across the sand.

"Based on previous analyses of the skeletons of Australopithecus afarensis, we expected that the Laetoli footprints would resemble those of someone walking with a bent knee, bent hip gait typical of chimpanzees, and not the striding gait normally used by modern humans," Raichlen said.

"But to our surprise, the Laetoli footprints fall completely within the range of normal human footprints," he added.
This is the next step from the bipedal gait found in Ardipithecus, which may have been reflected in the earliest australopithecine, A. anamensis and, perhaps, early A. afarensis. By this point, Bipedalism was the preferred means of getting around.

New Smithsonian Human Origins Exhibit

The Smithsonian Institution has unveiled their new human origins exhibit and if ever there was a reason for a trip to D.C., this is it. Dan Vergano of USA Today has the story:
Fantastic it is. A glittering time tunnel greets entrants with its portraits of early human species from the last 6 million years. Throngs of visitors take turns pawing the real-scale model skulls of humanity's ancestors, set on swivels at the entrances.The exhibit is the Smithsonian's effort to tell the story of human evolution, from the ape-like Sahelanthropus tchadensis to Homo sapiens.

Light and airy, with the wired-in feel of an Apple store (terminals and gadgets abound) instead of a stuffy cabinet of wonders, the exhibit features original artifacts such as the first Cro-Magnon man skull discovered, cast skeletons including Homo floresiensis (a.k.a. "hobbits") and Homo erectus, interactive theaters and even a vividly-recreated "cave art" wall. "They are using everything," said curator and paleoanthropologist Rick Potts, buffeted by visitors on the exhibit's second day.
The article is descriptive but lacking in images so one is invited to imagine what the exhibits look like. As if to provoke a response where none was needed, USA Today asked Ken Ham what he thought:

As for creationists' take on the exhibit? "I haven't really paid too much attention to it," says Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis, which runs the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky. Famed for its juxtaposition of people and dinosaurs, the museum promotes a literal reading of the Old Testament in its view of human and the Earth's origins. "I'm amused how much the (Smithsonian) exhibit cost. We built a whole museum for that much," Ham says.

For anyone keeping score, the Smithsonian's Hall of Human Origins measures 15,000 square feet and the Creation Museum encompasses 70,000 square feet of exhibits.

Warming to his topic, Ham called it "child abuse" for the Smithsonian to "promote the secularist view that people are just animals. So, if you are an animal, you might as well do anything you want."

Aside from the fact that his response is simplistic in the extreme, it just wasn't necessary to include this bit of controversy in the story. Yes, controvery exists in this kind of exhibit but at least it seems that Rick Potts, the curator, is letting the exhibit speak for itself. A small video for class would be nice.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Guardian Backpeddles

In the wake of Oliver Burkeman's ill-advised editorial in the Guardian, which was taken to the cleaners by Jerry Coyne and others, Adam Rutherford, one of the editors of Nature, has written a piece critiquing Burkeman's piece. Rutherford's tag line is appropos:
The media love to give undue coverage to flimsy attacks on evolutionary science. And leave others to clean up the mess.
Indeed. He continues:
Of course, there are plenty of things that Darwin got wrong. That is the nature of science, and indeed good scientists love to be wrong. It means that the theory will subsequently be refined to be more right. Darwin knew, as does every subsequent evolutionary biologist, that natural selection is the major, but not the only contributing factor to evolution.

Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini seem oblivious to this. They base their whole argument on either misunderstanding what real evolutionary biologists think, or by simply ignoring it. They describe processes in evolution that are easy to understand and are part of evolutionary theory, and quote them as a means to knock down that exact same theory. Repeating and enhancing these brainwrongs so elegantly, as Burkeman does, simply makes matters worse.
Burkeman's article, and the book from which he quotes, are just more in a long line of books and articles that are written about evolution by non-evolutionary biologists or non-palaeontologists who have no familiarity with either the data or the theory and are more interested in making names for themselves than getting the facts straight. Between nonsense like this and that created by the Discovery Institute, it is hard to know which mess to clean up first!

Australia's Fossil Graveyard

The Brisbane Times is reporting on the Billabong graveyard in western Australia that is teaming with fish. Deborah Smith writes:
DEATH came on a grand scale 360 million years ago in the state's central west.

When severe drought caused a large billabong to dry up, the fish in it expired en masse, forming a uniquely rich fossil site near Canowindra.

''There are literally thousands of fishes, crowded together like sardines in a gigantic tin,'' said Per Ahlberg, a palaeontologist at Uppsala University in Sweden.

The extraordinarily well-preserved fish fossils, excavated 17 years ago, have helped make Canowindra a popular tourist destination.
But the money is running out and there is much more to be found. Dr. Ahlberg believes that among the fish could be early tetrapod remains, which would make this area one of the earliest tetrapod locations.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Testimony of a Former Young Earth Creationist

Terry Gray points to a post on the ASA site by Dr. Joshua Zorn, a former young earth creationist who went on to get a Ph.D. in physics. It is heartfelt and wrenching because, along with Glenn Morton's account, it reveals the struggles that many who discover that the young earth arguments don't have merit encounter. This post arose out of the discussion of my cross-post over on Steve Martin's blog about how to handle encounters with YEC supporters in a loving way. Joshua writes this:
While it is true that the results of the historical sciences are often tentative because we cannot go back in time to observe directly what happened, many of the results are quite secure and have impacted our lives. Success in locating oil deposits, an understanding of where earthquakes will occur, our understanding of historical passages in the Bible, a deeper understanding of human and animal behavior, and the powerful argument for the existence of a Creator based on the Big Bang (see The Creator and the Cosmos in the bibliography below) all depend on the accuracy of the results of the historical sciences such as historical geology, plate tectonics, paleontology, archaeology, anthropology, history, cosmology, and behavioral ecology.

Do not fall into the trap of thinking the age of the earth is just a matter of "trusting God's Word" versus "trusting science." Christians need to, and every day do, trust both. The common error of rejecting many well-established results of science in favor of a certain biblical interpretation is not a valid Christian position. In the end, the truth will be a harmony which rejects neither the teachings of Scripture nor the well-established results of science. The results of science (properly interpreted) should never challenge the authority of Scripture, but they may cause us to reexamine our interpretation of Scripture. This is what I am pleading with young earthers to do.
Please read this article. It is very appropriate for the struggles that we as evolutionary creationists/theistic evolutionists go through every day. Even if you are not sympathetic to our position, it will help you understand where we are coming from.

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Friday, March 19, 2010

Armored Contemporary of the Trilobite

A rare fossil has been discovered in the middle of the city of Ottawa. Terra Daily reports on this amazing find:
Plumulitids were annelid worms - the group including earthworms, bristleworms and leeches, today found everywhere from the deepest sea to the soil in your yard - and although plumulitids were small they reveal important evidence of how this major group of organisms evolved.
Here is the reconstruction of what the critter is thought to have looked like. These animals likely had a kind of body armor that protected them from predators.

Another piece of the puzzle.

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Nonsense at the Guardian

It is always a bit amusing when a non-scientist uses a tired analogy to prove a point that he or she wants to make. Oliver Burkeman of the Guardian is just such a non-scientist. He has written a piece called Why everything you've been told about evolution is wrong. That is an exceedingly tall order so let's see why he thinks this. He writes:
Inevitably, those of us who aren't professional scientists have to take a lot of science on trust. And one of the things that makes it so easy to trust the standard view of evolution, in particular, is amply illustrated by the legend of the Nasa astronomers: the doubters are so deluded or dishonest that one needn't waste time with them. Unfortunately, that also makes it embarrassingly awkward to ask a question that seems, in the light of recent studies and several popular books, to be growing ever more pertinent. What if Darwin's theory of evolution – or, at least, Darwin's theory of evolution as most of us learned it at school and believe we understand it – is, in crucial respects, not entirely accurate?
This reminds me of the simulated conversations between the student and the teacher in which the student asks a question that the teacher cannot answer and gets flustered about. What if it is wrong? Burkeman focuses on epigenetics, the idea that changes that occur to an individual during life can have an influence on their descendents in terms of their abilities to do certain things. He gives several examples, all mysteriously from Sweden, in which he mentions how this plays out in chicken populations and in children whose abilities seem to be holdovers from their parents. Here is the chicken example:
Take, to begin with, the Swedish chickens. Three years ago, researchers led by a professor at the university of Linköping in Sweden created a henhouse that was specially designed to make its chicken occupants feel stressed. The lighting was manipulated to make the rhythms of night and day unpredictable, so the chickens lost track of when to eat or roost. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, they showed a significant decrease in their ability to learn how to find food hidden in a maze.

The surprising part is what happened next: the chickens were moved back to a non-stressful environment, where they conceived and hatched chicks who were raised without stress – and yet these chicks, too, demonstrated unexpectedly poor skills at finding food in a maze.
This simply isn't news. And it sure as heck isn't epigenetic. If a healthy woman undergoes a significant amount of stress, be it environmental or psychological, it affects her ability to conceive and bear a healthy child. Countless studies have shown this. What Burkeman doesn't say, and what is elucidated by Jerry Coyne, is that within two generations, the chickens had returned to normal, as had the children. The examples, therefore, demonstrate nothing whatsoever in terms of epigenetics.

It gets worse, however. He interviews one of the authors of the book What Darwin Got Wrong, Jerry Fodor about the inability of natural selection to power evolutionary change. Berkman writes:
I called Fodor and asked him to explain his point in language an infant school pupil could understand. "Can't be done," he shot back. "These issues really are complicated. If we're right that Darwin and Darwinists have missed the point we've been making for 150 years, that's not because it's a simple point and Darwin was stupid. It's a really complicated issue."

Fodor's objection is a distant cousin of one that rears its head every few years: doesn't "survival of the fittest" just mean "survival of those that survive", since the only criterion of fitness is that a creature does, indeed, survive and reproduce? The American rightwing noisemaker Ann Coulter makes the point in her 2006 pro-creationist tirade Godless: The Church of American Liberalism. "Through the process of natural selection, the 'fittest' survive, [but] who are the 'fittest'? The ones who survive!" she sneers. "Why, look – it happens every time! The 'survival of the fittest' would be a joke if it weren't part of the belief system of a fanatical cult infesting the Scientific Community."
This is facile. Every generation, there are changes that occur in any given environment and for every given generation, there are a host of mutations that express themselves in the population. Selection acts on the traits that are present in the individuals of a population in such a way that some traits are more selectively advantageous and some are not. Those that possess the advantageous traits tend to leave more offspring. This perpetuates (usually, not always) the existence of these traits in the population. This is not a hard concept.

Here is an example: in west Africa, malaria is prevalent. Recent advances have beaten back the disease but it still exists. Malarium falciparum, requires nice healthy red blood cells to do its job and it makes people with the parasite very ill. Conversely, many individuals in the area suffer from a deadly mutation that causes the red blood cells to form a "sickle" shape and, thus, not deliver enough oxygen to the cells. If you have two alleles for this trait, the trait expresses itself. If, however, you only have one allele that produces the sickle cell, you express the illness in a reduced form and it is manageable. The parasite doesn't like you, however, so you don't get malaria. Consequently, these two forms of the red blood cell gene are maintained in populations in West Africa.

During the slave trade, however, many African blacks were brought to the New World, where there is no malaria. As Darwin's theory of selection would predict, the frequency of the sickle cell allele is dropping like a rock. In the absence of selective pressure to maintain it in the population, it is being selected against. That is how selection works and that is how populations respond to selective pressures. There are countless examples of this in the natural world and even some examples of artificial selection to breed hardiness into a species of plants or animals. I have not read Fodor's and Piattelli-Palmarini’s book (too many other things to read) but if that is the gist of it, there is little point. Guardian readers would be best served by skipping this piece by Burkeman.

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

New Research Pushes Back Occupation of Flores

It is now thought that the inhabitants of the island of Flores, from whence come the hominid euphemistically known as "the hobbit," may have been on the island as early as one million years ago. NewsDaily picks up the Reuters story:
In their paper, the researchers said they found 45 stone tools in Wolo Sege in the Soa basin in Flores.

Led by Adam Brumm at the Center of Archaeological Science in the University of Wollongong in New South Wales, Australia, the researchers used new dating methods and found that the stone tools were about a million years old.

"It is now clear, however, in light of the evidence from Wolo Sege, that hominins were present on Flores (a million years ago). This suggests that the non-selective, mass death of Stegondon sondaari and giant tortoise ... could represent a localized or regional extinction," they wrote in their paper.
A lot of evolution can happen in a million years.

Climate Change and Human Evolution

ScienceDaily is reporting on an initiative by the National Research Council to understand how past climatic disturbances affected human evolution. The author writes:
Climate and fossil records suggest that some events in human evolution -- such as the evolution of new species or movements out of Africa -- coincided with substantial changes in African and Eurasian climate. This raises the intriguing possibility that environmental factors affected or controlled our species' evolution. By altering the landscape, past changes in climate may have exerted pressures that led to genetic selection and innovation in humans.
This is not really a new idea. From Elizabeth Vrba's turnover pulse hypothesis in the 1980s to the notion of biocultural evolution, it is clear that humans have been affected in large ways by climatic shifts. While it is quite possible that bipedalism originated in a forest environment, with the expansion of the grasslands and savannas, it took off. Neandertals adapted to a ridiculously cold environment in Europe that saw the tundra line at Vienna and glaciers completely covering Great Britain and Scandinavia. When the weather got warmer during the Würm interstadial, the modern traits began to arise, through assimilation, replacement or hybridization.

What I think is at the root of this enterprise is a major effort to research palaeoclimatology, to see if it can be used to predict what might happen in the future. The problem I see is that there are no reasonable analogues. Neandertals were using flakes and rudimentary blades to hunt and cook food. We have had toasters for a hundred years. Research into palaeoclimatology will yield clues to how we evolved, but, perhaps, not how we would currently face an impending climate crisis—especially if we don't know what that is going to be.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Pictures of the Liang Bua Excavations

The Sacramento Bee has lots of high resolution pictures of the excavations taking place at Liang Bua, the site of the discovery of Homo floresiensis.

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The Nexus Gets More Heated

New Scientist has a story on the connection between global warming and creationism, which has everyone's dandruff up. Deborah MacKenzie writes:
SCHOOLS in three US states - Louisiana, Texas and South Dakota - have been told to teach alternatives to the scientific consensus on global warming. The moves appear to be allied to efforts to teach creationism in public schools. Such efforts have in the past been thwarted when courts ruled them unconstitutional, but those advocating the teaching of sound science may find it harder to fight misrepresentations concerning climate change.

Last week, South Dakota's state legislature adopted a bill which "urges" schools to take a "balanced approach" to teaching about climate change, because the science is "unresolved" and has been "complicated and prejudiced" by "political and philosophical viewpoints".
I can't tell if this is the "teach the controversy" ploy, the "teach the full range of scientific views" ploy, the "critical analysis/thinking" ploy or the "strengths and weaknesses" ploy. Who is telling them to do this, you ask? Why, those bastions of scientific learning, the state legislatures, of course. There is a concerted effort here that becomes plain later in the article:
Bundling warming with evolution in calls for "academic freedom" may make it harder to challenge these laws. Steve Newton of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California, observes that the US constitution restricts the teaching of religious ideas in state schools, but not the teaching of bad science. A study last year found that evangelical Christians, who account for most creationists, are up to three times as likely as other Americans to deny that warming has human origins.
If this is the case, then contrary to what the Moderate Voice has to say, evolution education in this country may be in for the battle of its life. Much depends on whether the courts view the connection favorably or whether they will see this as grandstanding on the part of organizations promoting the watering-down of evolution education. It may be that if court cases arise, the plaintiffs can focus on the fact that the bill covers evolution and, therefore, is religiously-based. Hard to tell how this one is going to go.

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Growing Up Science-Literate in Japan

My guest column over at Steve Martin's blog is up, titled Growing up Science-Literate in Japan.
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Saturday, March 13, 2010

Steve Matheson Takes on Signature in the Cell

Steve Matheson, professor of biology at Calvin College in Michigan has been going through Stephen Meyer's The Signature in the Cell. He is now on chapter seven. He points out something that probably bears some thinking about:
The question, it seems to me, is not whether superintelligent beings could have done this or that. It's whether we expect that they could have done this or that. And specifically, whether and when we are warranted in seriously considering their action as we formulate explanations. That's more tricky than most people seem to understand. On the one hand, superalien (aka supernatural) activity has a poor reputation as a scientific explanation, for very good reasons. On the other hand, there are situations we can imagine wherein superalien activity really is the only reasonable explanation at hand.
This is sort of a variant of "Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth." credited to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (one of the people suspected, by the way, of perpetrating the Piltdown forgery). The scientist in me just yelled

"yes, but it isn't testable."

This strikes at the nature of science. Is a scientific hypothesis testable or simply logical? As Steve notes, Meyer has to eliminate all possible causes for an explanation before the conclusion of Intelligent Design can be reached. As i wrote in his comments section: "Thus, while Meyer and other ID researchers can posit a supernatural design-by-fiat explanation for things like the flagellum or the blood clotting cascade, as long as there are reasonable evolutionary explanations, there is no compelling reason to consider Meyer's. Sure, you can't exclude ID from the realm of possibility but it provides no usefulness as an explanation. Such a dismissal is not necessarily simplistic. Given the current state of ID, we simply aren't warranted in considering the actions of a designer in formulating our explanations. Not yet."

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Friday, March 12, 2010

Acceptance of Human Evolution

And as if to drive home the point, UPI has a story recounting research that suggests that if students are accepting of an ancient age of the earth (conventional science), they will be more likely to accept human evolution as well. The story notes:
University of Minnesota scientists said their finding that a student who understands the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old is more likely to understand and accept human evolution could give educators a new strategy for teaching evolution.

Professors Sehoya Cotner and Randy Moore, along with D. Christopher Brooks of the university's Office of Information Technology, surveyed 400 students enrolled in several sections of an introductory biology course for non-majors.
Once one makes the jump to an old earth, the only alternative to accepting evolution is progressive creation. This presents its own problems in that a mechanism is still needed to actually put the animals on the earth progressively in a non-evolutionary way. Then the questions arise regarding junk DNA, ERVs, chromosomal fusions, and the massive amount of extinctions that have happened over the course of recorded time, for which supporters of progressive creation have no rejoinders.

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Anti-Evolution/Global Warming: Jay Richards Doesn't Help the Cause

Jay Richards of the Enterprise Institute has written a column implying that the connection between those espousing anti-evolutionary views and those that are skeptical of anthropogenic global warming has been manufactured out of whole cloth by the New York Times. He writes:
Now when I read anything on the environment in the New York Times, I try to keep a couple of deconstructionist qualifiers running in the back of my head: “This is what the New York Times wants me to believe about the issue” and “What are they trying to accomplish with this piece?” I know it’s cynical, but when it comes to environmental stories, I just don’t trust New York Times reporters to keep it straight. Some things they want to accomplish with this piece: (1) Divide and conquer skeptics of global warming orthodoxy and Darwinism, by painting the latter as ignorant religious zealots, in hopes of starting a fight among conservatives. No doubt they’re hoping that, say, Richard Lindzen will have to explain why he agrees with those nefarious creationists on the global warming issue, and that he’ll have to spend his time issuing statements of agreement with evolution. (2) Make it harder for official bodies to encourage critical thinking on global warming, since attempts to do the same with regard to evolution have, in recent years, met with fierce resistance and only modest success.
Now here's the bad thing. I agree with him whole-heartedly about the New York Times. In fact, I don't read the rag, such is the level of my disgust with it. Having said that, Mr. Richards goes on to say to some questionable things about the link between the two anti-science movements. He writes:

*Both issues suffer from “semantic creep,” which tends to prevent rational discussion.

So a vague word like “evolution” can range in meaning from the trivial and tautological—change over time and survival of the fittest—to the uncontroversial—certain organisms share common ancestors and natural selection explains some things—to the questionable and ideological—everything is the result of a purely impersonal process, we don’t exist for a purpose, we’re just carriers for selfish genes, natural selection and random genetic mutations explain everything interesting, and so forth. If you doubt the latter, you get lumped in with doubting the former.

Biologists don't have any trouble defining evolution. This semantic problem is only a problem for the media and organizations that support the teaching of intelligent design or creationism in the schools but don't seem to know much about evolution. There are numerous of these. He continues:

*If you doubt either idea, you’re accused, not of doubting that one idea, but of doubting science itself.

*With both issues, we hear a lot about consensus.

*Both have a way of surviving at the theoretical level even when individual pieces of evidence bite the dust.

*They’re both deeply embedded in the worldview of what David Brooks, perhaps with tongue-in-cheek, has called the “educated class.”

You hear a lot about a consensus in evolution because that is what there is. The number of biologists that don't accept evolution is vanishingly small (although I would love to see the Discovery Institute come up with a list of them). He writes about individual pieces of evidence biting the dust when no supportable evidence has been shown to do that. He suggests that they are supported by the "educated class." It is not clear that this is an insult. The focus and goal of education is to do just that: educate.

It is no mystery that the more people learn about and understand evolutionary theory, the more they accept it. This is the sum take-away message from just about every poll done on the subject. It just so happens that folks who are less educated about evolution also tend to support climate change skepticism. The Times is drawing a parallel by suggesting by way of correlation, that the two are linked in some way to an anti-science movement among conservatives. It is not manufactured out of whole cloth in any way. It is a persistent connection that begs investigation.

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Josh Rosenau Takes Casey Luskin to Task

Josh Rosenau has reacted to the piece by Casey Luskin about the New York Times article on the Georgia biology textbook stickers that I posted about yesterday. The Times argued that the high court decided that the biology sticker was unconstitutional because it singled out evolution among all of the science disciplines. Luskin, if you will recall, wrote this:
The problem with the NY Times’ claim is that the Selman case did NOT rule that the sticker was unconstitutional due to the fact that “evolution alone was the target.” In fact, in the Selman v. Cobb County ruling, Judge Cooper held that the Cobb County sticker had a valid secular purpose and that it was permissible to single out evolution. In the words of Judge Cooper’s lower court ruling in Selman, “The School Board's singling out of evolution is understandable in this context” because “evolution is the only theory of origin being taught in Cobb County classrooms,” and “evolution was the only topic in the curriculum, scientific or otherwise, that was creating controversy.”
About this, Rosenau writes:
I'm not a lawyer, but I've picked up some things over the years, and one of them is that the test at issue in Selman is something called the Lemon test. It has three parts (actually prongs, because lawyers love cutlery). The first is purpose: a government action may not have a primarily religious purpose. The second is effect: its effect cannot be to elevate one religion over another, or religion over nonreligion. The final is entanglement: The action cannot excessively entangle government with religion...

... Anyway, the court in Selman looked at a sticker which the local board of education wanted affixed to biology textbooks and applied the Lemon test. And the court concluded that, yes, placing the sticker on books does serve a secular purpose. Had the court stopped there, Casey would be right. But the court only stops when a policy fails one of the prongs, or after looking at all the prongs.
Rosenau continues by noting that the court viewed the opposition to evolution to be peculiar and to be historically religious-based. The court also noted that opposition to evolution had run into legal trouble in the past and used Epperson as an example. The sticker, therefore, violated the "effects" prong of the lemon test. As I wrote yesterday, Casey then wrote the New York Times and complained that they had gotten it wrong (when they didn't) and that there should be a correction. Here is where it gets a little funny. When they declined to do so, Luskin posted the information to his blog. Rosenau writes:
Having been rebuffed by the reporter, by the editors, and by lawyers with at least modest literacy, Casey didn't take the hint, so he posted his complaint and selections from the Times' response at the Disco. 'Tute complaints department (created, they explain, for "the misreporting of the evolution issue"), hoping that if he didn't link to the ruling itself and the various other documents relevant to the case, that his readers would just take his word for the ruling's content.
I linked to Luskin's piece yesterday, in which he waxes indignantly about being rebuffed by the Times. Rosenau continues:

What's most disappointing is that, for all Casey's bluster in his blog post (and presumably the letter he sent to the Times), he knew he was wrong. He knew this because he wrote this about the Selman case in a 2009 law review article (p. 54):

While the sticker passed the purpose prong of the Lemon analysis, the judge ruled that the disclaimer failed the effect prong of the Lemon test. The court observed that “citizens around the country have been aware of the historical debate between evolution and religion.” The court found that the school district did not intend to endorse religion, but nonetheless “the Sticker sends a message to those who oppose evolution for religious reasons that they are favored members of the political community, while the Sticker sends a message to those who believe in evolution that they are political outsiders.” In this particular case, “the informed, reasonable observer would know that a significant number of Cobb County citizens had voiced opposition to the teaching of evolution for religious reasons” and “put pressure on the School Board to implement certain measures that would nevertheless dilute the teaching of evolution.” Although the district did not intend to endorse religion, “the informed, reasonable observer would perceive the School Board to be aligning itself with proponents of religious theories of origin.”
While Casey decided not to emphasize the decision's specific references to the effect of singling out evolution, he quoted language found all around those passages, so I presume he read those bits as well, and saw how the parts he's quoting here connect to the parts about isolating evolution. So we know that, within the last year, Casey has apparently read the ruling. He saw that the sticker failed the Lemon test, and why. He knows better, yet he keeps advancing a claim which he knows to be wrong. I cannot fathom why. The issue isn't even the dishonesty of haranguing reporters with meritless demands for a correction, but the massive FAIL embodied in trotting out the attempts by others to set him straight that I find so puzzling.
There have been a number of instances in which DI individuals have posted about news stories (here and here) and have gotten basic points about the stories wrong. We all do that. This is a bit more complex, however, in that Luskin is being accused of academic dishonesty here. I am curious to see if he responds to Rosenau's accusation.

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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Casey Luskin Takes the New York Times to Task

Casey Luskin has written a piece about the New York Times article on "academic freedom legislation" in which he castigates the Times for getting the detail wrong in their wording on how the Georgia evolution sticker case was decided. According to the Times, the justices ruled that the sticker was unconstitutional because it singled out evolution in it focus. He writes:
The problem with the NY Times’ claim is that the Selman case did NOT rule that the sticker was unconstitutional due to the fact that “evolution alone was the target.” In fact, in the Selman v. Cobb County ruling, Judge Cooper held that the Cobb County sticker had a valid secular purpose and that it was permissible to single out evolution. In the words of Judge Cooper’s lower court ruling in Selman, “The School Board's singling out of evolution is understandable in this context” because “evolution is the only theory of origin being taught in Cobb County classrooms,” and “evolution was the only topic in the curriculum, scientific or otherwise, that was creating controversy.”

The court then found two legitimate secular purposes for the sticker. The sticker was permissible because the purpose of “[f]ostering critical thinking is a clearly secular purpose . . . [and] because [the disclaimer] tells students to approach the material on evolution with an open mind, to study it carefully, and to give it critical consideration.”
Luskin complains that he sent a correction request to the Times and received the response that their interpretation of the ruling was correct and they were standing by it. Luskin argues that the high court ruled that there were instances in which it was constitutionally acceptable to single out evolution.

This argument sort of sidesteps the science involved in favor of the law. The fact of the matter is that many that viewed the decision wondered why evolution, as a scientific discipline, was being singled out to the exclusion of all other disciplines. What is it about evolution, many wondered, that makes people see red? The Discovery Institute and other organizations that claim to support "academic freedom" and "teaching the full range of scientific views" have never addressed this issue. Other theoretical disciplines have unanswered questions. Those do not seem to get any attention from school boards, the Discovery Institute or other ID supportive groups. This, once again, begs the question: how is that for the last 150 years, the disciplines of geology, physics, chemistry, medicine, and engineering have gotten everything right (including black holes, of which none have ever been seen) and biology and palaeontology have gotten everything so totally wrong?

Luskin may have a valid point that the Times got it wrong. They tend to get much wrong, these days. But that doesn't change the court's consternation that evolution, and only evolution was being targeted.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Jerry Coyne Reacts to the Home School Ruckus

Jerry Coyne, who, if you will recall, co-reviewed sections of textbooks by Apologia and Bob Jones and gave them failing grades, began receiving email from "Christians." Here is an example of what he got:
Dear Sir,
I am very upset with what you said within a recent article on yahoo. Sir, I’m going to tell you something that you need to hear. Sir, You are going to HELL. Because when GOD CREATED the Earth HE made everything perfect and in GOD’s perfect plan humans didn’t need to be evolved from monkeys. So there evolution is wrong. GO Read the bible it tells you the truth, see what GOD said about creation, not what some Man thought were we came from. Because I believe that WORD OF GOD is the truth and nothing else is.
Yours truly,
a GOD fearing Man
That was the nice one. Here, from another post by Coyne, is the not so nice one. I have altered it just a bit in obvious ways:
Hey Jerry Coyne f**k you. You evolution faggot. Darwinism and evolution are the biggest pile of s**t lies ever made on the face of GODS green earth. People in the 1800’s thought Darwin was a dumb ass f**king lunatic. Home school books are lying to children? On no you son of a b**ch you and all these liberal piece of shit scum bag evolutionists are lying to children and every public school in the world. . . So go f**k your self or an ape and evolve some grotesque ape kids you loser fuck. I beat the s**t out of people like you, you cock smoking douche nozzle.
As I read this, at least part of me wondered aloud "is this a troll?" Due to the nature of free speech being what it is, there are trolls out there on the internet. I have had trolls try to post on my site. It is my sincere hope that this is an example of the writings of a troll. If not, this is exactly the kind of ammunition Jerry Coyne, P.Z. Myers and Richard Dawkins need to say "See, Christians are even nastier than we atheists. Where's the love of Christ here???" Interestingly, in the comments sections, a number of people have suggested the same thing I did. There are probably other Christians that read Coyne's site that were caught between the eyes like I was.

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The Home Schooling Article: the Missing Paragraph

In the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette version of the home schooling article that I posted about yesterday, there is a paragraph that was omitted. Here is a quote from the article as it appeared in Foxnews. I have bolded the section that was not in the version I posted:
"Those who do not believe that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God will find many points in this book puzzling," says the introduction to "Biology: Third Edition" from Bob Jones University Press. "This book was not written for them."

The textbook delivers a religious ultimatum to young readers and parents, warning in its "History of Life" chapter that a "Christian worldview ... is the only correct view of reality; anyone who rejects it will not only fail to reach heaven but also fail to see the world as it truly is."

When the AP asked about that passage, university spokesman Brian Scoles said the sentence made it into the book because of an editing error and will be removed from future editions.
I am now going to list some notable people that have gone to Hell:

St. Augustine
St. Basil
Justin Martyr
Clement of Alexandria
B.B. Warfield
Bernard Ramm
Father Teilhard de Chardin

All of the above thought that a literal reading of the first chapters of Genesis was unwarranted and reduced the scriptures to a caricature. Is it true that some of them thought the earth was young? Of course they did. They had no evidence to the contrary. It is also true that when the evidence began to pour in (like Niagara falls), people like B.B. Warfield and Bernard ramm simply adopted the evidence as part of the growing biblical faith. In The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Mark Noll writes the following:
Despite widespread impressions to the contrary, [young-Earth] creationism was not a traditional belief of nineteenth-century conservative Protestants or even of early twentieth-century fundamentalists. The mentality of fundamentalism lives on in modern creation science, even if some of the early fundamentalists themselves were by no means as radical in their scientific conclusions as evangelicals have become in the last forty years. For instance, during the century before the 1930s, most conservative Protestants believed that the “days” of Genesis 1 stood for long ages of geological development or that a lengthy gap existed between the initial creation of the world (Gen. 1:1) and a series of more recent creative acts (Gen. 1:2ff) during which the fossils were deposited. As we have seen, some conservative Protestants early in the century — like James Orr of Scotland and B. B. Warfield of Princeton Theological Seminary, both of whom wrote for The Fundamentals (1910-1915) — allowed for large-scale evolution in order to explain God’s way of creating plants, animals, and even the human body. (As it happens, their position closely resembled official Roman Catholic teachings on the subject.) Popular opponents of evoution in the 1920s, like William Jennings Bryan, had no difficulty accepting an ancient earth. [pp. 188-189]1
It absolutely amazes me how many young earth creation supporters are vocal about their opinions that those of us that take an old earth view are going to Hell, as if somehow that is the only view of the scriptures that is warranted. That is like saying that the King James Bible is the only one that can be read. All the others are apostate and constitute heresy. The blinding arrogance just stuns me. Internet Monk has a plea on his site that I and so many that I know echo:
If I could get just one message to the world’s creationists, it would be this: please have the same humility as Joe Boysel, and recognise that your knowledge of the scripture does NOT entitle you to make pronouncements on science. No, not even if you’ve read a couple of Duane T. Gish paperbacks. Would you try to tell a lawyer his job after reading Honest Bob’s Big Book Of Law? No? Then please have the humility not to try to tell palaeontologists their job from a position of similar ignorance. All you’re achieving is poisoning the well for those of us who would otherwise be in a position to engage with atheists and agnostics in our science.

1Noll, M. (1995) The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. New York: William B. Eerdmans

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Tuesday, March 09, 2010

More Home Schooling Frustration

After a year and a half, Melanie and I are removing our two older children from the Christian school that they currently attend. The reasons for this are three-fold: first, it is eating us out of house and home. Even with financial aid, at my associate professor-equivalent salary, the bottom is dropping out. Second, Melanie feels that she has lost touch with them in some ways and wants to reestablish this contact. Third, I have a growing unease with the science curriculum and want to be able to control the kind of instruction that they receive in this area. The school is, otherwise, top flight and it is clear that Marcus and Madeline have been challenged and strengthened in their education and faith in most areas. For that we are very grateful and we have told the headmaster that we don't want to close the door on our involvement with the school, science reservations aside. It is clear that the children made a substantial positive impact on the school and he said that we will be sorely missed.

So, since we have never seriously considered public education, we are going back to the home schooling route, which worked pretty well before the private school. Welcome to the science minefield. Dylan Lovan, of the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette has a story about what to expect from your average home school curriculum. He writes:
Christian-based materials dominate a growing home-school education market that encompasses more than 1.5 million students in the U.S. And for most home-school parents, a Bible-based version of the Earth’s creation is exactly what they want: Federal statistics from 2007 show 83 percent of home-schooling parents want to give their children “religious or moral instruction.”
It is worth pointing out that those are not necessarily the same thing. We want to give our children religious and moral instruction as well. We just don't want it to be young earth creationism. Therefore, it is not clear how many of those 83% are YEC-oriented . It is clear that this is part theology but part business as well:
The size of the business of home-school texts isn’t clear because the textbook industry is fragmented, and privately held publishers don’t give out sales numbers. Slatter said home-school material sales reach about $1 billion annually in the U.S.

Publishers are well aware of the market, said Jay Wile, a former chemistry professor in Indianapolis who helped launch the Apologia curriculum in the early 1990s.

“If I’m planning to write a curriculum, and I want to write it in a way that will appeal to home-schoolers, I’m going to at least find out what my demographic is,” he said.
So, is it about the science or is it about the Benjamins? When Jerry Coyne, author of Why Evolution is True, and Virginia Tech professor Duncan Porter reviewed some of the textbooks from Bob Jones University and Apologia, they gave them Fs for failing to teach basic biology and evolutionary theory. That brought this response:
Wile countered that Coyne “feels compelled to lie in order to prop up a failing hypothesis. We definitely do not lie to the students. We tell them the facts that people like Dr. Coyne would prefer to cover up.”
That's contemptible. What is Coyne lying about? Why would he lie? What evidence does Wile have that it is failing? My son uses an Apologia science book for his class at school. After reading that quote, I am sorely tempted to burn it the minute he has his last day at class! The book is called Exploring Creation with Botany and is part of the "day" series and I have blogged about my experience with this book here. The writer didn't just get things wrong, she got BASIC things wrong—as though she had no familiarity with what she was writing about. Is this academic integrity? Is this how we want our students and children to learn?

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The Monkey Bible Project: Teaching Evolution

The Monkey Bible Project is sponsoring a contest to see who can come up with the most effective evolution curriculum aimed squarely at religious audiences. According to the story on CNBS er sorry, CNBC, their mission is: explore the line which separates humans from non-human animals; to promote the acceptance of racial, religious, and bio diversity; and to encourage scientific and religious communities to work together to protect the countless creatures on the tree of life, upon which all human life depends.
Well, just to hazard a guess, I am betting you won't get too many Christians on board by calling yourselves the "Monkey Bible Project."

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Are We Alone?

A story coming from Wired reports that a chemical spectral signature of the Orion Nebula has revealed that all of the elements of life have been found. According to the story, by Alexis Madrigal:
By finely separating the spectrum of incoming light, astronomers are able to detect the chemical fingerprints of molecules like water and methanol. The spectrograph that their work produces can be seen in the image above. The peaks represent the presence of the molecule indicated.
Here is the image from the Wired Story. Click on it to make it larger.

Way Cool!

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Monday, March 08, 2010

"Hobbits" Redux

An article that originated with the AP and appeared nearly everywhere yesterday addresses the consensus about the Liang Bua remains called Homo floresiensis. Since their discovery, there have been largely two schools of thought about what the hominid remains represent: pathological deformation involving microcephaly or representatives of a new species of hominid. As Michael Casey of the AP notes:
The feud has played out in top scientific journals. But a growing consensus has emerged among experts on human origin that this is indeed a separate and primitive species that lived in relatively modern times - 17,000 to 100,000 years ago. The November issue of the highly respected Journal of Human Evolution was dedicated to the Flores findings and included a dozen studies supporting the hobbit as a new species.

Chris Stringer, research leader in human origins at the Natural History Museum in London, said the critics are "very much in the minority now." He said that he just returned from a meeting in Arizona of more than two dozen experts on human origins and found widespread support there for the new-species theory. No one, he said, "took the view that this was some weird, pathological freak."

William L. Jungers, a paleoanthropologist at Stony Brook University Medical Center who co-edited the Journal of Human Evolution issue, insisted the debate was over. He has published a study of the hobbit's feet which found it had traits associated with both modern humans and apes.

"This is a new species that cannot be explained by any known pathology," Jungers said.
Cladistic analysis by Argue suggests that H. floresiensis split from the main line either before or after the Homo habilis branch. It is important to note that this kind of find doesn't overturn evolution or even human evolution, it just puts new wrinkles into the picture of hominid origins. Interesting ones at that.

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Anti-Evolution/Anti-Global Warming: Connection:The Discovery Institute Weighs In...

John West of the Discovery Institute has a comment on the recent anti-global warming/anti-evolution nexus. It is, of course, phrased in a very different fashion than that of The Moderate Voice (not to mention P.Z. Myers of Pharyngula, who is downright giddy with derision). He writes:
The nationwide effort to protect the freedom of teachers to hold balanced classroom discussions of evolution, global warming, and other scientific issues is highlighted on the front page of today’s New York Times. The article, “Darwin Foes Add Warming to Targets,” contains the usual errors and mischaracterizations one expects from the establishment media.
This is a bit of a smokescreen because, when it comes right down to it, most folks at the DI don't think that evolution ought to be taught at all, as evidenced by their promotion of the abysmal text Of Pandas and People. Casey Luskin, notably, does not seem to feel this way. Of course, West states that the report contains errors and mischaracterizations but then proceeds to outline not one of them. One can only guess to what he is referring. He then writes:
People want genuine education about scientific topics, and that includes being able to study all of the evidence, not just a few data points cherry-picked for their propaganda value. Of course, the Times’ article parrots the standard refrain that there are no legitimate scientific criticisms of things like Darwinian evolution or man-made global warming. Tell that to the more than 800 doctoral scientists who have signed the Dissent from Darwin statement, or to anyone who has read the “Climate Gate” emails
Once again, there is a startling lack of detail in this response. As far as the Times parroting the refrain that there are no valid criticisms of "Darwinian evolution" (at least he didn't call it "Darwinism"), the Discovery Institute has yet to counter that claim. In twenty years, they have produced no scientific papers that have successfully rebutted the claims of evolutionary theory. Not one. If there are criticisms against evolutionary theory, show us what they are in such a way that the papers stand up to scrutiny.

The other problem here is this blinkin' Dissent from Darwin list. I have blogged about this list several times, here, here and here. It is populated primarily by physicists, medical doctors,and engineers. There is one palaeontologist and nine geologists, none of who publish regularly and none in biogeography or biostratigraphy. As one of my faithful readers points out, they can't even get the name right. They claim it to be a dissent from "Darwin" as if Charles Darwin were alive and well and living among us. This neglects 150 years of evolutionary theory and research, of which the vast majority of the people on that list would be ignorant. It is not that they do not do wonders in their own fields, it is just they they don't know anything about evolution.

Since the DI doesn't welcome comments and won't publish their researchers' email addresses (a practice I find very peculiar and not academic in the least bit), I have no way of addressing their points about the list. I would challenge them to compile a list of biologists and palaeontologists that dissent from "evolutionary theory." I would be willing to bet it won't get north of 30 names.

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Friday, March 05, 2010

On the Other Hand..."Checkmate?"

Moderate Voice has pointed out that this anti-global warming/anti-evolution connection banner that the conservative movement is so willing to march to will backfire rather badly on them. The author writes:

This is pretty darned handy. Now, if somebody is skeptical about whether humans are causing global warming, or whether data is being gathered in hot spots, they can just be shot down as anti-intellectuals who don’t believe in evolution, either.

Kinda like this.

What a godsend (pun intended) for the AGW believers. Now, instead of haggling about science, they can just lump questioners into the same category as the anti-evolutionists.


Up until this point, anti-evolution promoters did battle only in the public school and church arenas. The global warming debate includes EVERYONE! They're profile just rose 100%. Oh joy. It always gets darker just before it gets pitch black.

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Dinosaur Extinction: "The Smoking Gun?"

ABC News is carrying a story about research performed by over forty different scientists that provides the strongest evidence yet that the reign of the dinosaurs came to an unceremonious end around 65 mya due to the impact of an asteroid the size of the Isle of Wight. Stuart Gary writes:
In this latest study, researchers examined the sedimentary material around the impact site and found it was far too violently churned up to provide a reliable dating record.

They found that farther away from the impact site, the sedimentary material becomes a single layer at the K-T boundary, matching the composition of rocks at Chicxulub.

They also determined that despite evidence for relatively active volcanism in India, ecosystems showed only minor changes within the 500,000 years before the K-T boundary event.

Only at the boundary do things suddenly change.
As the article notes, however, other scientists are not so convinced. One of my friends from graduate school said at the time that dinosaurs show steep decline ahead of the K-T boundary and that they hang around for awhile after the boundary, suggesting that other factors were at work. This is echoed by Steven Salisbury of the University of Queensland, who is quoted in the article.

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Since I put up the post on the conservatives' connection between the fight against global warming and evolution, I have seen no fewer than ten versions of that story all over the news. This is not good.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Patrick J. Buchanan Waxes Greatly About That of Which He Knows Not

An article making the rounds on the conservative blogs by Patrick Buchanan, one-time GOP presidential candidate, trots out more half-truths about evolution and global warming. Titled, the Hoax of the Century, Buchanan makes the following statements:
With publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, the hunt was on for the "missing link." Fame and fortune awaited the scientist who found the link proving Darwin right: that man evolved from a monkey.

In 1912, success! In a gravel pit near Piltdown in East Sussex, there was found the cranium of a man with the jaw of an ape.

"Darwin Theory Proved True," ran the banner headline.

Evolution skeptics were pilloried, and three English scientists were knighted for validating Piltdown Man.

It wasn't until 1953, after generations of biology students had been taught about Piltdown Man, that closer inspection discovered that the cranium belonged to a medieval Englishman, the bones had been dyed to look older and the jaw belonged to an orangutan whose teeth had been filed down to look human.
Because Buchanan knows so little about evolution and the fossil record, he imagines that the above paragraphs are quite pithy. They are not. Is it true that Piltdown took in some well-known scientists? Yes, it is. What is largely responsible for this, however, is how good a hoax it was. To this day, we don't know for sure who perpetrated it, although the cloud of suspicion hangs over the head of Charles Dawson, who died in 1915, three years after the "remains" were found. Dawson took advantage of the fact that, in its infancy, the study of human evolution simply did not have the tools necessary to uncover such a hoax.

What Buchanan does not say is that, despite the fact that many people did accept it, many also did not. Ales Hrdlicka, the founder of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists and Franz Weidenreich, describer of the Zhoukoudian (Peking Man) fossils both thought that the remains were questionable. Hrlicka came right out and pronounced it a hoax while Weidenreich admitted that he did not understand how it could fit with what was known of human ancestry at that time.

The other thing that Buchanan does not say is that Weidenreich had great reason to wonder. Beginning in the early 1800s all the way up through the uncovering of Piltdown and beyond, a huge assortment of fossil human remains had been discovered all over the Old World. There had been Neandertal discoveries in Europe, at the sites of Spy, La Chapelle-aux-Saints, La Ferrassie, St. Cesaire just to name a few. In Africa, one of the key predictions of Darwin, that human ancestral remains would be found there, had been borne out, with the discoveries of Australopithecus remains in the 1920s and 1930s. Homo erectus remains had been discovered in East Asia beginning in the 1890s and more was to come. Somehow, Buchanan, in his effort to make his point about human evolution, fails to mention any of these.

Simply put, by the time Piltdown was dethroned and removed from the human fossil "tree," most workers in the field had already considered doing so. There was simply no place for it. It was an anomaly in the record of human evolution. It is not the first time that science has been taken in by a hoax and it will not be the last.

He continues:
In 1922, Henry Fairfield Osborn, president of the American Museum of Natural History, identified a tooth fossil found in Nebraska to be that of an "anthropoid ape." He used his discovery to mock William Jennings Bryan, newly elected to Congress, as "the most distinguished primate which the State of Nebraska has yet produced."

Invited to testify at the Scopes trial, however, Osborn begged off. For, by 1925, Nebraska Man's tooth had been traced to a wild pig, and Creationist Duane Gish, a biochemist, had remarked of Osborn's Nebraska Man, "I believe this is a case in which a scientist made a man out of a pig, and the pig made a monkey out of the scientist."
Not only is this untrue, it conflicts broadly with another creationist myth, that Osborn did testify and embarrassed William Jennings Bryan at the trial. The truth of the matter is that Osborn was not even on the list of witnesses that the defense brought. The NCSE report on this "myth" has this to say:
Quite simply, Henry Fairfield Osborn never testified at the Scopes trial. He was not even on the list of scientific witnesses that the defense team organized. The front page of the New York Times for July 14, 1925, has a boxed article entitled "List of Scientists and Ministers to Aid Scopes if Evidence Is Admitted on Evolution and the Bible." This article begins with the statement: "The complete list of witnesses for the defense in the Scopes trial called so far and who are either here or on the way was announced today as follows. . . ." The article goes on to list the names, positions, and affiliations of fifteen people; Osborn is not among them.
Not only was he not there, he wasn't planning to be there. Now let's turn to Nebraska Man. When I was doing my graduate work in anthropology, I took a course on forensics. One of the things we were taught is that when doing experiments to see how bone will behave, pig bone is always used because it behaves the most like human bone. Pig teeth, in fact, are very similar to human teeth and a very worn pig tooth and a very worn human tooth are similar in appearance. Osborn was sent a human tooth in isolation from any provenance. While this doesn't entirely excuse his mistake, it does make it a bit more understandable. As Jim Foley, on the TalkOrigins page notes:
Most other scientists were skeptical even of the more modest claim that the Hesperopithecus tooth belonged to a primate. It is simply not true that Nebraska Man was widely accepted as an ape-man, or even as an ape, by scientists, and its effect upon the scientific thinking of the time was negligible. For example, in his two-volume book Human Origins published during what was supposedly the heyday of Nebraska Man (1924), George MacCurdy dismissed Nebraska Man in a single footnote:"In 1920 [sic], Osborn described two molars from the Pliocene of Nebraska; he attributed these to an anthropoid primate to which he has given the name Hesperopithecus. The teeth are not well preserved, so that the validity of Osborn's determination has not yet been generally accepted."
Further, as far as a primate tooth in North America was concerned, this was not so odd. Fossil primate remains are known from North America. Adapids were present in the Eocene epoch (55 to 34 mya) and were, depending on where Ida fits, the precursors to the Omomyids (Tarsiers) and maybe the lemuriforms and lorisiforms as well. As late as the late Eocene, one finds fossil tarsiers in North America. Then the line dies out and the only branches that survived were those in the Old World. It is not until the end of the Oligocene (34 to 23 mya) that one begins to find large-bodied primates in the Old World that were the precursors of today's apes and humans. In the early 1920s, very little attention had been turned to North America in terms of fossil hominid research and so, while the idea of a Pliocene primate would certainly raise eyebrows today, in Osborn's time, it would not have done so.

From here, Buchanan turns his attention to global warming, the "great hoax of the 21st" century. I am not qualified to evaluate his arguments in this area because I do not have the necessary background. I can say, however, that his attention to detail and truth in evaluating evolution are appalling and if he approaches global warming the same way, he is way out of his depth. This sort of "gotcha" editorial should be an embarrassment to conservatives everywhere.

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